Violence and Nonviolence

Missy Higgins: Oh Canada

‘But the body of Alan being laid upon the sand / Tell me how do you live with that?’
– Missy Higgins (2016)

The heart wrenching photograph of the death of the two-year-old Syrian boy Alan Kurdi shifted the attention of the contemporary refugee crisis. Seeing the lifeless body washed ashore moved the public opinion on a fulcrum of grief.

The song Oh Canada of Missy Higgins tries to express this grief through the story of Alan Kurdi. Kurdi’s family fled from the war in Syria and dreamed of making new life in Canada, but due to misfortune most of the family drowned in the Mediterranean sea. The chorus of the song alludes to the dreams of the Kurdi family to reach Canada, sung from the perspective of the father:

Oh Canada, if you can hear me now
Won’t you open up your arms towards the sea?
Oh Canada, if you can help me out
All I ever wanted was a safe place for my family

Higgins states that the song isn’t only about Canada, but any country where refugees seek asylum. Australia for example, has strict refugee laws, going as far to send boats of refugees back (King 2016). Higgins didn’t want to criticize or preach; she just wanted to make sense of her emotions and spread awareness about the way in which other countries deal with refugees, which is explored in the outro:
There’s a million ways to justify your fear
There’s a million ways to measure out your worth
But the body of Alan being laid upon the sand
Tell me how do you live with that?

Notably, there is no strong rhyme between the words ‘sand’ and ‘that’. Higgins is willing to make the last lines less concise to ask the question how countries can live with their xenophobic policies.

This xenophobia towards the migrant is explored in Butler’s chapter ‘The Ethics and Politics of Nonviolence’, were they state that this fear comes from the desire to keep Europe ‘white’ and ‘pure’ (Butler 2020). Violence against migrants is justified on the basis of fear for refugees: ‘the violence is state violence, fueled by racism and paranoia, and directed against the migrant population’ (Butler 2020). More importantly, every individual has a certain ‘grievability’, a reasonable basis for how much someone is grieved or mourned. As they state: ‘The thousands of migrants who have lost their lives in the Mediterranean’, just as the life of Alan Kurdi, ‘are precisely lives that are not deemed worthy of safeguarding.’ (Butler 2020). Thus, Alan Kurdi’s life was ungrievable from the start.

But how does Butler’s view coincide with Higgins song? Thousands of listeners grieved Alan and his family. When listening to this harrowing song, even I broke down in tears, especially with the lyric:

I’m not losing everything I love tonight

Of course Alan is grieved by certain people and communities, but only thinking in terms of grieving individuals would make the concept of grievability loss its critical edge. According to Butler, ‘all lives are equally grievable’ (2020, 148). To use the term grievability is to criticize the language of ‘inequality’ deeply rooted in hegemonic discourse. We need a displacement of language to get rid of the cold and rationalist language of inequality. This displacement is useful to criticize the corrupted system that determine which lives are not worthy of grieving. The song Oh Canada can help to spread awareness about refugee policies of countries, and to make lives like that of Alan Kurdi grievable in the future, so that this sort of violence may never happen again.

Brenno Mulder


Butler, Judith. 2020. ‘The Ethics and Politics of Nonviolence.’ In The Force of Nonviolence, 103-150. London/New York: Verso.
King, Robin Levinson. 2016. ‘Australian singer Missy Higgins pens song “Oh Canada” in memory of Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi.’ Toronto Star, February 19, 2016.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *